The Characters (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Although the book’s focus is on the title character, the other major characters in Alice Adams are also developed and rounded. As individual as his main characters are, Tarkington uses them all to develop his ideas about the dishonesty of a social system based upon appearances and material wealth. Through his main characters, Tarkington includes all social classes, from the lowest to the highest.
At first, Alice Adams strikes the reader as merely an appealing young woman whose main concerns are the related issues of the social life of her peers and the finding of a suitable, financially sound beau. Quickly, however, Tarkington introduces the idea that will govern his novel: the search for identity. After lying to Arthur, Alice stares at herself in her mirror and asks the question, “Who in the world are you?” The book becomes the story of her quest for identity in a society in which identity is largely a construct and extension of material wealth.
Alice’s father, Virgil Adams, enjoys a naturally ethical character. His loyalty to his employer is absolute until Mrs. Adams finally breaks down his objections under the force of larger obligations to his family and its fortune. Virgil works in the “old hole,” and his name suggests Dante Alighieri’s Virgil, who serves as a guide to hell. The allusion refers both to the family’s inexorable downward slide and to Virgil’s failure or sin in ethics and judgment. Only after his...
(The entire section is 651 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of Alice Adams Characters. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Alice Adams, a dreamer whose family is not rich enough to send her to college. She tries to attract attention by affected mannerisms. Disappointed in every ambition, she finally stops daydreaming and, reluctantly, enrolls in Frincke’s Business College.
Virgil Adams, her father, an employee of the Lamb Wholesale Drug Company and part discoverer of the formula for a special glue. The co-discoverer has died. The failure of Virgil’s project to manufacture the glue causes him to have a stroke.
Mrs. Adams, Alice’s socially ambitious mother, who nags her husband to make more money but ends up taking in boarders.
Walter Adams, their son, who has stolen three hundred dollars from his employer. He is more interested in gambling with waiters than in dancing with his sister at Mildred’s party.
Mildred Palmer, Alice’s best friend.
Frank Dowling, a fat, unpopular boy who is the only one attentive to Alice at the dance.
Arthur Russell, a distant relative of the Palmers who is momentarily interested in Alice, then finds her repulsive.
Mr. Lamb, who builds his own glue factory and destroys Virgil Adams’ prospects.
(The entire section is 219 words.)
Booth Tarkington was especially skillful in depicting women. Keith J. Fennimore in his critical study of Tarkington's books comments that "as Henry James is said to have done, Tarkington looked at women rather as women look at them; women look at women as persons, men look at them as women." Alice Adams is his finest portrait of a woman. Alice fantasizes, lies, and uses every ploy her imagination can conceive to convince herself and others that she does not belong in the steadily deteriorating circumstances of her family life. She does have charm and a certain degree of wit, and she is basically a realist who now and then pulls herself up short, and asks herself, "Why am I telling these lies?" Her struggle to win the wealthy socialite, Arthur Russell, strains her tactical resources to the utmost, but the reader comes to admire the real Alice beneath the pattern of lies she weaves to prevent Russell from coming too close to the other members of her family living in the small pseudo-colonial house. She has courage and determination, and these serve her well when she realizes on the night of an awful dinner party that she has no future with this young man. Her family is destroyed by its own lack of imagination and mediocrity, but she survives and plans for herself a future she is capable of realizing.
Virgil Adams is a well-drawn figure. He is a weak person who is finally goaded by his wife into a business venture that he knows at heart is beyond his...
(The entire section is 730 words.)